More On Miracles (Q&R)

Yesterday I got a comment on blog post from 2 years ago. Since this subject comes up frequently, I thought it would be good to respond.

I hope you get some sort of update from comments posted on old posts.

Indeed I do! Thank you so much for taking the time to write in.

I’ve been trying to work through how I understand God working in the world and have felt pretty comfortable with saying that God doesn’t make things happen in this world. For me, that still allows for relational interaction with God but the one place that I am getting stumped on is miracles or even just praying for things that may be outside of personal introspection or transformation. I have never seen any miracles like the ones I’ve heard about by several very close people I know. When I say miracles I mean things like paralyzed people being healed and even people’s limbs growing back. I know it sounds crazy but I hear really sound people that I respect telling about how they have done these things. Now, I don’t want to discredit it just because I personally haven’t seen it. Then there are things like Jesus healing a blind man with mud and spit, was it psychosomatic? I don’t know how to approach these things.

The one thing I would say is that we have not taken the gospel stories about Jesus seriously enough. We look at them from a very mechanistic point of view: What was the product? What was the process? Can it be replicated? Are there measurable outcomes?
We get very focused on the byproduct or the outcome (healing) and miss the rich narrative and literary emphasis of the story itself. “Jesus healed a guy” I hear people say … “Yes but notice how and where” I want to respond.

The two things people often fail to notice is that:

  • It was almost never in the same way twice. That signals to me that healing is neither formulaic nor is it reproducible. Something was going on in those stories that is tailored to that person and that time. I love the gospel stories of Jesus’ healings … almost as much as I hate it when people try to make healing standard and ritualistic.
  • Those stories play a role in the gospels that they are found in. These accounts in John 9 and Mark 8 function in the narrative that both John and Mark give us. Synoptic studies are one of my favorite hobbies and one of the things you quickly learn is that those stories can not be lifted out of their gospel and simply cut & pasted into another gospel. The story is told a certain way and plays a unique role within the larger text.

The stories of Jesus’ healings don’t happen in a vacuum. That play a performative function with the gospel narrative and must be read within that context.

One of my first clues that this was true is that no one – even those of us who believe in healing – spit on the ground and put mud on people. Why? Because it is not a formula! Something unique was happening in that story and we all sort of secretly know that.

Just because Jesus walked on water doesn’t mean that you don’t need a boat!

The gospel stories about healing had to do with Jesus’ messianic claims and that is why the Bible is not a how-to play book or manual. The formulaic mentality around healing today is a disastrous byproduct of the Industrial Revolution … oddly the same era (thanks to Gutenberg) that allowed for mass-produced Bibles so that we can all read it for ourselves! But that is a different blog post.
The Secret Message of Jesus is the best book I have ever found for talking respectfully about the role that these healings play in their unique gospel accounts.

I have much more to say about this … but I need to get to your real question!

With this being said, if miraculous healing through prayer is possible (which I sort of hope is) my question would now be why does God only choose to heal some people and let others who are being prayed for suffer? Or why would we have to pray for certain sufferings to stop? Why isn’t it enough for a certain person to be suffering and need God’s healing? Do our prayers make God’s intervention possible in a way that he couldn’t do without? Let me know what you think and thanks for giving your time!

Let me begin by saying that you have perfectly asked the central questions of this difficult issue. This is why some people walk away from the subject all together and dismiss any accounts of modern-day healing. Even those of us who try to practice the way of Jesus and follow his example are often baffled and left either shaking our heads or shrugging our shoulders.

If God can heal and doesn’t …
If we have to be good enough …
or believe hard enough …
or pray long enough …
or pray good enough …
If this is in any way based on our merit … this seems like a problem.

On the other hand – if God can do something and doesn’t …
maybe it is for a larger purpose …
or maybe it is just ‘not yet’ …
or maybe we just look forward to our heavenly bodies on the other side …
or maybe God is really finicky.
These are all possibilities and actual things that I have heard people say.

Here is where I am on the issue: God is doing the best that God can do. I don’t believe that God is holding out or that God’s goodness will run out.

I have said before that I have become very comfortable with the possibility that the world as it exists is the best that God can do. I’m not saying that I believe that – just that I am open to that possibility.

  • What if God is doing all that God can do in the world right now?
  • What if God isn’t all-powerful but only very powerful?
  • Or that God’s power is a different kind of power?
  • What if God isn’t pretending or self-limiting?
  • What if God is giving all that God has to the moment?

Once you move on from an ‘interventionist’ notion of God the whole world looks different. The word ‘supernatural’ is one of the worst concessions that modern christians have made. I believe in miracles (outside the ordinary expected) and I remind folks that the Biblical formulation of ‘signs and wonders’ is not the same as ‘super-natural’. These phrases get all mashed together by those who have taught this way. We need to take the Gospel accounts seriously enough to slow down and reexamine our assumptions.

There is no such thing as ‘super-natural’.
God’s work is the most natural thing in the world.

I do not believe in a realm (the natural) that is without God. As a Christian, I believe that God’s work is the most natural thing in the world. I am unwilling to concede the natural-spiritual split and then leave less and less room for God as science is able to explain more and more. The church is foolish to accept the dualism (natural-supernatural) and then superintend only the spiritual part.

Thank you so much for writing in! It has been fun to revisit this concept. You may want to check out my post on Prayer and Poetry and Dealing with Demons as well.

Let me know your thoughts or any questions you have. This is a difficult topic but a very necessary conversation.

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Small Batch Artisanal Church

In the TNT that comes out this evening, we get a call about the difficulties of starting new communities. We had Tim – the Elder of Hops – in the house and some really good stuff came out in the conversation.

As I drove back from Tripp’s I thought of about some other things that seemed relevant to the conversation. I took some time yesterday to type up a couple of thoughts from this past Sunday’s conversation at the Loft to share here.

In this past Sunday’s gathering we talked about the importance of being physically together as a community. This is true for both our gatherings but also our service projects. This is why we don’t call our Sunday times together ‘services’ but gatherings – because service happens when we are outside the walls together.

I was able to share some things that I find compelling about a couple of other religions. Islam’s ‘5 Pillars’ all have a physical component. Confessing, praying, giving, fasting and going on a pilgrimage are all embodied practices. The connection of religious beliefs to the body is something that intrigues me. (We also talked about physical considerations in the Jewish observance of Sabbath)

I admit that it puzzles me that Christianity – a religion whose central event in the incarnation where we believe that the Word became flesh – can so often be an intellectual and abstract religion. Christianity has come to see itself as a very universal religion … almost to the point that it is can be un-embodied.

  • We don’t have to pray out loud.
  • We don’t have to face any specific direction.
  • We are not required to travel anywhere.
  • We don’t need to fast.
  • We might give to those in need.

This seems like a problem to me. I know that throughout Christian history there have been (and continue to be) many powerful physical practices that deepen or expand our devotion, insight, perspective and experience. Some branches of the church family are far better a sustaining these practices than others. In the 21st century, it is going to become increasingly difficult to integrate those practices into a communities or traditions that are not familiar with them.

This led us to talking about ‘the worth of words’ and the power of symbols (signs) when it comes to both portraying yourself to the outside world and attracting the kind of friends/attention that you are seeking. We do this perpetually – whether intentionally or not – both as individuals and as a community.

Which brings us to the title of this blog. I have wanted to have cameras in the Loft space since the beginning. The other leaders have vetoed this idea at every turn. I thought it would help people see how innovative the gatherings were and to have some sense of what they were being invited to. This seem necessary because we have tweaked both the form and the content.

It would be one thing if we just sat on couches  in the round, drank coffee and had conversations about standard run-of-the-mill Christianity.

It would be another thing if we had a super progressive message but kept all the other things the same: sitting in rows, facing the same direction, one presenter for 30 minutes after 4 songs off the newest ‘worship’ album.

We have changed both the form and the content which has caused a case of dis-orientation for some. That is why I wanted the cameras – so that people would see it and have some idea of what they would be coming into.

In the end, we decided that it was more important to provide a safe space for those who actually attend than to produce a good show for those who watched remotely. I now think this was a good decision.

The question remained though: how do we get the attention of those who we think would love to participate if they only know about it?

My humorous suggestion was to begin referring to ourselves as ‘a small batch artisan church with farm to table spirituality’. That got a big reaction … because we all know that those words don’t exactly mean anything when used like that. BUT we all know that those are the types of words that are important to the kind of folks we are made up of. For others it might be words and phrases like organic or free-range or fresh brewed.

We laugh because we know that these are the kinds of world that are used to market consumer goods to us. We, of course, are not looking to market nor are we offering a consumer good. We are however looking for like-minded souls with whom we can have (and form) community in the midst of a very busy city. SmallBatchChurch

So until we find a better way to do so … I’m going to tell people that we are “a small batch artisanal church with farm-to-market spirituality” and see how that goes.  I even made poster to see how it looked!

This has generated some great conversations. No, those words don’t exactly convey our actual values or commitments … but at the same time they do hint at a certain vibe and ethos that is telling. It’s like ‘Homebrewed Christianity’. We don’t brew faith per se but … it is a play on words that conveys a certain sense of the attitude and atmosphere that you can expect.

 

 I would very interested in the words and phrases that appeal to you when think or talk about church community. 

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Plug in ‘the Church’ as an experiment

An interesting way to expose the difference between two things is to take out the subject of great quote and replace it with something else to see if it still works.church-300x199

If your replacement X cannot work in place of the initial Y then you are forced to ask ‘why is this the case?’

Let me give you an example:

(The Church) was there to remind the (society) of what it had flouted: art, pleasure, gender, power, sexuality, language, madness, desire, spirituality, the family, the body, the ecosystem, the unconscious, ethnicity, life-style, hegemony. This, on any estimate, was a sizable slice of human existence.

When I find a great quote or list, I try to plug-in ‘the church’ and see if could be true historically.

I would love to be able to say that the church has been about these things:

  • art
  • pleasure
  • gender
  • power
  • sexuality
  • language
  • madness
  • desire
  • spirituality
  • the family
  • the body
  • the ecosystem
  • the unconscious
  • ethnicity
  • life-style
  • hegemony

If that has not been the case, then, I have to ask “why not?” and it is often that search which is telling.

If the church has not, or is not, about promoting those things then what has it represented? It is that search which is illuminating.

What is keeping that sentence from being true of the church?

 

Here is a second set of examples. All of these quotes are from the same chapter:

(The Church) refuses to identify freedom with any institutional arrangement or fixed system of thought. It questions the hidden assumptions and purposes of competing theories and existing forms of practice. It has little use for what is known as ‘perennial philosophy’. (The Church) insists that thought must respond to new problems and the new possibilities for liberation that arise from changing historical circumstances.

I want the above quote to be true! If it is not, then what is keeping it from being so?

 They investigated the ways in which thinking was being reduced to mechanical notions of what is operative and profitable, ethical reflection was tending to vanish and aesthetic enjoyment was becoming more standardized. (The Church) noted with alarm how interpreting modern society was becoming even more difficult. Alienation and reification [turning people into things] were thus analyzed in terms of how they … robbed the world of meaning and purpose, and turned the individual into a cog in the machine.

The above quote is challenging because it is almost possible.

The next one is just for fun.

(The Church) lost its ability to offer an integrated critique of society, conceptualize a meaningful politics, and project new ideas of liberation. Textual exegesis, cultural preoccupations, and metaphysical disputations increasingly turned (the church) into a victim of its own success. The result has been an enduring identity crisis.

Any guesses as to who this was actually referring ?

  • Textual exegesis
  • cultural preoccupations
  • and metaphysical disputations
  • victim of its own success
  • enduring identity crisis

These 3 quotes are from chapter 1 in Critical Theory a very short introduction. The first quote was from Terry Eagleton. After Theory (Kindle Locations 325-327) in reference to Cultural Theory and the traditional Left.

Why am I attracted to both Cultural and Critical Theory? Maybe it is because they are often about the things I desperately wish being a pastor was about …

I find this experiment helpful in attempting to crack assumptions about what the church is and has been.

I will never tire of reminding people that there is a gap between what many think the church is and what the church can be.

 

What do you think? Does the experiment work? Is it helpful? 
Any quotes that you love we could try it with? 

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Christianity Without A Cross?

On this week’s TNT I introduced an interesting thought experiment: take the cross out of the Jesus story and see what you can still do.cross-150x150

This this thought experiment appeals to me for two reasons:

  1. Modern Protestants have overdone it on the cross
  2. The incarnation and resurrection hold far more interest and power

 

I have started to get some great responses to my assertion that one could still come up with over 90% of Christianity without the cross.

I thought it would be good to give it more form here and open it up for conversation.

Keep in mind what I’m saying and what I am not saying:

  • Just because Jesus’ story went the way it did doesn’t mean that it had to go that way.
  • Just because things are the way they are doesn’t mean that they have to stay this way.
  • Jesus’ resurrection could have followed any death – not just the cross.
  • The incarnation is where the old formulation of divine/human or transcendent/imminent are breached or fused.
  • The Christianity that we have was formed in the aftermath of the cross and resurrection … that is not evidence of the cross’ necessity.
  • Had Jesus died some other way, he still would have died once for all.
  • The satisfaction, propitiation, expiation and reconciliation that so many focus on in atonement theories are still there without the cross.
  • The Christianity that would have emerged would have been slightly different but still largely the same.
  • Jesus’ jewishness, the incarnation, resurrection and Pentecost are the 4 things that still anchor the Christian church.
  • The cross really doesn’t play that important of a role – not like the previous 4 – it’s main purpose is decoration on our buildings, necklaces and t-shirts.

Those are some of my thoughts about the variable of the cross.

My final point is not included in the same manner as those above, but to be honest: once the Roman Empire co-opted christianity (the Constantinian Compromise) the cross has mostly been a hood-ornament on the machine of empire. Except for a few places on the periphery and during a few periods of severe oppression and domination … the powerful church has been better, as Tripp says, at building crosses than bearing them.

This point does not prove the thought-experiment, so I don’t want it to distract the conversation, but in the end … I’m not sure how much the cross really does for us.

This is one of the many reasons that I promote being an Incarnational Christian. That is where the power is – incarnation and resurrection!

  • Jesus could have died of sudden-infant-death-syndrome or of old age and still died once for all.
  • Jesus could have been stabbed or beaten to death and it is still the resurrection where God vindicates the victim.

I would go as far as to say what the cross was meant to expose – the scapegoating and victimization mechanism – is still firmly in place and actually still employed by those who sing ‘The wonderful cross’ and ‘on a hill far away’ on Sundays.

 

There ya go! I have tried to make a case with this thought experiment – I would love your feedback, concerns, and questions!

Let’s have some fun with this.

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Catholic, Quaker, Evolution, Apocalypse: final TNT for ABCs

We finish with a BANG! Callid and Bo conclude the ABC’s of Theology series with: W-WordofGod

Thank you for all of your feedback and encouragement.

A special thanks goes to Jesse Turri for the artwork for this series!!!!

You can find the Unfolded narrative podcast here.

 

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Z is for Zebra

I was taught to refute evolution. It was a cornerstone to apologetics.Z-Zebra

Zebras and their stripes were a primary example used to refute evolution. If the stripes are for camouflaging a herd of zebras from predators … the first striped offspring would have actually stood out from the heard and thus been an easy target.

This is an example of getting ahead of oneself without fully entering into the school of thought one is trying to combat.
We saw this same problem with Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron’s banana conversation. You can’t simply start with where we are and extrapolate backwards from there.

  • Science has a commitment to the process.
  • Apologetics has a conviction of the conclusions.

We can’t pretend to honestly engage in asking questions if we begin with the assumption of the answers. That will always result in coming out with twisted conclusions.

Admittedly, scientists have been baffled over the zebra’s stripes for a long time. Recently some strong studies has have shown that the stripes are not about camouflaging herds from large predators but about flies. The region where zebras dwell has a breed of flies called tsetse that are legendary in their viciousness. Scientists have historically known that flies have an aversion to landing on striped surfaces. The zebra’s striped pattern acts then as a natural deterrent. This leads to greater health with less blood loss and therefore greater vitality which benefits reproduction – passing on those key genetics to offspring.

It turns out that zebras stripes are not about herds camouflaging from large predators but about individuals deterring small pests. This means that the initial zebra ancestor to have that genetic variation would have benefited and thus that attribute would be more likely to be passed on to the next generation.

So the apologetics argument I learned is flawed and would not refute the point it is intended to.

That is problem #1 with not fully entering into an idea well enough to understand it – there has to be a commitment to the question not just a conviction about the conclusion.
Problem #2 is that much of the suspicion from creationists about evolutionary thought is based on the hard and cold version of survival of the fittest from a century ago. Many don’t know of newer strains of evolutionary thought that incorporate cooperation, mutuality and emergence thought.
Evolution has evolved in the past 30 years but many creation apologists prefer to takes pot-shots at the straw man caricature of darwinian schools of the past.

As we wrap up the ABC’s of Theology series, I wanted to acknowledge that not only has christian belief evolved and adapted over the centuries and encourage you to embrace these historic adjustments. The gospel is itself incarnational and the universe is evolutionary. Those two things go together beautifully. The gospel is good news and is constantly in need to be contextualized to new times and new places. The scriptures are inherently translatable and come into every language and culture. This is one of the unique aspects of the christian religion.

If evolution is true of the universe, christians should have no need to avoid or refute it. We can embrace evolutionary thought wholeheartedly.

Christians should, after all, be people who love truth.

Artwork for the series by Jesse Turri 

You may also want to check out earlier posts about technology, the Bible and specifically genres within the Bible.

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Y is for Y2K

In December 1999 I got a call from a newspaper reporter. They were calling pastors and religious leaders in our city to see what they were telling their people about Y2K. Y-Y2K

When the article came out I was the only pastor who was telling their people not to worry and that the real fear was people panicking and doing stuff like pulling all of their money out of the banks.
This was especially odd because I was part of a denomination that majored on eschatology and was very end-times focused.
I had multiple friends in that group who made major purchases (like extra freezers) in preparation. One close friend went in with another family and bought a trailer full of food and supplies and had it parked in a remote location … but then they had to worry about guns in order to protect the trailer in case of societal breakdown.

The alarm and drastic measures are telling. There is something about the way that we have been taught to read the Bible that makes us especially susceptible to panic. By calling the Bible ‘the word of god’ and not distinguishing genres we end up creating a tight little system of end-times expectation that repeatedly fails us.

I became a bible-believing christian during the cold-war era. Communist Russia was our biggest threat and christian books and TV shows were filled with very specific projections about how current events lined up with biblical prophecy.
On the latest TNT I told Tripp that we were taught to read the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other – because they lined up!

Not understanding that apocalyptic literature in the Bible is a critique of the present order and a hope of future deliverance makes us vulnerable to panic.

We are taught that apocalyptic elements in the Bible are predictive instead of prophetic critique and this is creating the problem that leaves us so susceptible.

In my short lifetime I have seen so many predictions come and go. I have seen layers and layers of moving onto the next thing a passage means without even acknowledging that 6 months ago we were told it was something different.
There is a sort of amnesia required to stick with this way of reading the Bible for more than a couple of years.

I have seen more than 40 antichrists come and go. Everyone from foreign leaders to Popes to Presidents have been said to be the Antichrist.
This exposes a second problem with eschatological expectation.
Every time I hear the phrase ‘the Antichrist’ I know I am in trouble. The person has not done a close reading of the Bible.
If you read the 4 passages in the New Testament in which this phrase appears you will be left asking why we think that a world leader is this character. The answer is that in eschatological readings there is a great deal of amalgamation.

Amalgamation happens when you take a character like ‘antichrist’ and blend it with an Old Testament character like ‘the prince’ from Daniel 9 or a the bad-guy from Revelation 13. You take all of the villains in all of apocalyptic literature and meld them into one super-baddy.

I just had a talk this weekend with a denomination leader about how end-times expectations have changed in their lifetime. We talked about young leaders and how different their eschatology is from 50 years ago.

My hope is that in the next 3 decades that sincere people of faith get fatigued on this unfulfilling way to read the Bible and this next generation is released and empowered with an understanding of genre that does not leave them susceptible and vulnerable to panic over sensations like y2k and franchises like Left Behind.

The world is in too great a need for really great people to be distracted by thinking that apocalyptic is A) predictive and B) about the 21st century.

Link: previous post about the book of Revelation

Artwork for the series by Jesse Turri

 

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X is for X-ray

Something a little different today. 

100 years ago was the beginning of what became known as World War I. X-Xray
I am fascinated by the changes that have come in that 100 year period.

The transition from the 19th to the 20th century houses a fascinating and rapid shift in both politics and technology (to name just two fields).

The build up to World War I is a study in what seems like not just a different time but wholly different world at points. Like learning the geography of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth or the kingdoms and families in The Game of Thrones, the world before the great war seems alien.
You have to get up to speed on such things as the Habsburg Dynasty and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Eschatology is an interesting entry point to this conversation. At the beginning of the 20th century, Post-Millenial views were the overwhelming position for protestant churches and denominations. The optimistic view of human progress and societal transformation brought an expectation of ushering in the Kingdom of God and a reign of peace and prosperity that would fill the whole earth. The horrors of the war brought that to an end. There was no ‘war to end all wars’ and by the end of the 20th century (the Christian Century) Post-Milleninial views were as a rare as telegraphs.

The beginning of the 20th century also saw seismic shifts in technology. The telephone, the airplane, vaccines and the radio mark the the era. The Xray illustrates the point as well as any other from this era.

The ability to see into the human body is remarkable. It transforms not just how we practice medicine but how we conceptualize the human body.
I read a passage a while ago, which I can now not find, where an author wondered how the apostle Paul’s writing would have changed if he had been able to take a trans-Atlantic flight or if he had seen that famous picture of the earth as a little blue marble as seen from the moon.

Which brings us to the question at hand as we begin to wrap up this series:

If technology and medicine, communication and psychology, economics and politics – and every other field – get to (and are encouraged to) advance, evolve, adapt and transform … why is religion so bound to the thinking of the pre-moderns and the ancients?

There is something peculiar about religious thought that needs to be examined. I understand those who want to conserve the tradition – I don’t agree but I understand the conservative impulse.
I prefer an approach that is incarnational and contextual. I see christianity as embodied (in-body) in a time and a place. All theology is contextual theology (as folks like Bevans and Shreiter say) and our faith must be re-callibrated, re-formed and re-membered within our cultural context.
Faith, like language, does not happen in a vacuum. It is (in)hereted. There is a given-ness to it. But faith is also in-acted and em-bodied.

This is a delicate dance to both honor the tradition and express in our time and place the truth of what was passed on to us.

The 1500’s had both Copernicus and William Harvey. The former told us that the earth revolved around the sun, the latter that the heart was responsible for blood circulation. In science the telescope and the microscope changed everything.

We live in the nuclear age. The Xray, the nuclear bomb and the microwave are just the tip of the iceberg. I have not even touched on TV, cell-phones, no-fault divorces, Christian-Mingle websites and credit-card giving machines in the pews.

Why, when every area of our lives from medicine to politics to economics to psychology is updating and evolving … why would religion insist on holding to the cosmology, metaphysics and epistemology of the pre-modern world?

When we get sick, even conservative/traditional folks will take an aspirin and get an x-ray.
The Christian faith, based on the story of incarnation, is designed to be embodied in a time and place. To hamper this process of adaptation and adjustment is to not only miss the point of the entire story but to worship an idolized moment in the development of its trajectory.

I would love to address the formerly enchanted world (without supernaturalism)  and the concept of second naiveté – but here is what I really want to leave you with:

The gospel is designed to be (in)carnate and (em)bodied. We have no fear of losing the gospel’s essential character by appropriating it to our time and our place. We live in a world come of age. It is time for a response to nuclear theology.

 Artwork for the series by Jesse Turri

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W is for the Word of God (and Wesleyan Quad)

There is no phrase that is more misused, or more contentious, than The Word of God. We might need to take a vacation from throwing the phrase around as a tight summary until we pull it apart and clarify its multiple uses. W-WordofGod

The Word of God, when used properly, carries three layers of meaning:

  1. Divine Communication. The prophets used the phrase in the Hebrew Testament to convey weight and authority. They had a message for the people of God that could be encouragement, directive, corrective, or illuminating.
  2. Logos – divine wisdom. New Testament believers are treated to a syncretistic twist when the Gospel of John prologue draws off the greek notion of logos and then shockingly says what no greek thinker could fathom saying: “the word became flesh and dwelt among us”.
  3. Revelatory elements in the scriptures. When the Spirit who inspired the original works illuminates the message again for a contemporary audience, it is said to be ‘the word of God’. (Thanks be to God)

For clarity I will now refer to the first and third meanings as ‘the word of the Lord’ and the second as the ‘Logos made flesh’.

The pitfall that some fall into is that they take this last sense (revelatory elements within scripture) and attempt to make it concrete (or foundational). Doing so is to erroneously confuse the messenger and message, the vessel with the element, the sign for the object.

Calling the Bible the Word of God is as inaccurate as it is accurate. It is not exactly true … but it is true enough that it is tempting. The problem is that it confused the ‘curves ahead’ road sign on the mountain road for the road up the mountain. It is not that they are unrelated – it is that they are not equivalent. The map may be accurate, and trustworthy for the journey, but it is not the landscape itself.

Knowing the map well is not the same as going on the journey.

This is the important difference between a sign and symbol.

  • A sign points to a greater reality … even if it does so imperfectly. The yellow and black ‘curves ahead’ sign on the mountain road is not telling you the exact sequence of twists and turns ahead. It is not map. It is alerting you to something bigger than itself.
  • A symbol, when used theologically, is a sign that participate in the reality that it points to. In this sense, the Bible contains the potential for the word of the Lord, it records instances of the word of the Lord, and it tells us about the Logos made flesh. The Bible is thus not unrelated to the Word of God but is not exactly equivalent either. It records and points to a greater reality (like a sign) and under the influence of Holy Spirit inspiration participates in that reality to which it points (symbol).

One can see the problem in legal court and in Sunday school. It is ironic to place one’s hand on a Bible and swear ‘to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help you God’. The irony, for those who have actually read the Bible, is that it says in two New Testament passages not to do such things. We are not to swear by things but to simply let our yes be ‘yes’ and our no, ‘no’. That should be enough. We don’t need to swear by heaven or earth or anything like God. It is an odd practice.
Similarly we see things like this in the songs we learn as children:

The B-I-B-L-E,
that’s the books for me,
I stand alone on the Word of God

The Bible is not a book. It is a collection of 66 books by different authors in different centuries representing different histories, perspectives and opinions utilizing diverse genres of writing. This is part of why you can not say ‘the Bible says’.
When we say that ‘the word of God is living and active’ or that ‘all scripture is God breathed and useful’ we are right … but we must avoid the temptation of too quickly boiling those three into down into one interchangeable phrase lest we miss the awesome power and invitation provided by the interplay between them.

Now, if we mean that because of what we learn in the Bible, we hear the word of the Lord and believe in the Logos made flesh … that would be fantastic. ?If, however, we mean that the Bible is equivalent to the Word of God, then we have set our children up to be confounded, frustrated and spiritually impotent.
We have given them a road sign and told them it was the adventure. ?The word of the Lord propels us on a journey! To walk the way of the Logos made flesh, to know the truth of that which was in the beginning – with God and was God – and to live the life of the ages (eternal life).
To paraphrase a famous line – we are like children making mud-pies out of dirt in the back alley while there are real pies waiting in the kitchen.

Part of the problem is that we have try to cram too much into the phrase ‘the word of God’ and asked more from it than can be expected from any sign or symbol.
The most helpful thing I have found to address this problem is called the Wesleyan Quad. The quadrilateral is composed of 4 elements:

  1. Scripture
  2. Tradition
  3. Experience
  4. Reason

Those 4 elements also work best in that sequence.
– We go to scripture first for it records examples of the word of the Lord and points us to the Logos made flesh.
-We next consult the tradition, for religion has a given-ness to it. We inherent a living tradition and participate in its practices, rituals, ceremonies, train of the thought and teaching.
– We also recognize that importance of our community-experiences. No one is spiritual or religious on their own like no one uses language alone. We learn a language from others and use a language to communicate with others. It is not enough to know of a religion – one participates and thus experiences. We learn from and incorporate our community-experiences.
– Finally comes reason. We are made in the image of God and that divine Logos (reason) was given to us to exercise responsibly. We are not called to be robots who mechanically parrot the inherited sentences in rote repetition. There is a deep need to think about things so that our tradition does not become a dead artifact, or worse, a false idol.

The danger of what has been called ‘Bibliolotry’ is not simply that it makes the Bible ‘a paper pope’ or ‘the 4th member of the trinity’ (as bad as those seem). The danger is in missing the way, the truth, and the life that is available to us by instead settling for a road-sign instead of an adventure.

 

I would love to hear your thoughts about my distinction between the Word of God as the word of the Lord, the Logos made flesh and the Bible. 

Artwork for the series by Jesse Turri

For more read my earlier posts about Inspiration and about Revelation.

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TNT: S T U for the ABC’s of Theology

Micky and Callid join Bo to discuss Salvation, Theopoetics and Universalism for the ABC’s of Theology. S-Salvation

You can read the original posts here:

S is for Salvation (Micky)

T is for Theopoetics (Callid)

U is for Universalism (Bo)

 

You can follow the rest of series here [link] 

Artwork for the series by Jesse Turri

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